• What We’re Reading This Summer 2019


    Thomas S. Harbin, MD, MBA
    Book Review Editor

    Senior ophthalmologists share the best of what they’re reading this summer. Share what you’re reading and send your review to scope@aao.org

    The Fabric of the Cosmos: Space, Time and the Texture of Reality
    By Brian Greene
    Reviewed by Alfredo A. Sadun, MD, PhD

    It’s not often that you get to read a book that is written by one of the world’s leading physicists AND a Pulitzer Prize finalist. The man can write.

    Greene proved this when he wrote “The Elegant Universe,” and with the latter book, I expected a more modern version of the same. Instead, Greene took the subject matter to a new and deeper level. I divide this book into three sections. The first takes a very fundamental point of view and asks how many dimensions are there. Three was the traditional answer and then, after Albert Einstein gave us special and then general relativity, we went to a paradigm with a four-dimensioned space-time universe.

    The middle third of the book is about quantum mechanics and tries to reconcile it with the newer ideas brought about by both special and general relativity. Finally, the last third explains how string theory with its 11 dimensions, may have bumbled into the answer. 

    As I feared, some parts were quite technical. But they were interspersed with a great number of easily accessible analogies. That surprised me, for the world of the very small (quantum mechanics) and that of the very large (relativity) don’t lend themselves to real world analogies. We, as humans, live on a planet of medium sized things under the influence of mild gravity and with objects that move pretty slowly.

    So, in our world, simple Newtonian mechanics suffices. More to the point, we evolved in this world where natural selection favored a brain and intuition that modeled and predicted events that only exist in nonquantum, nonrelativity worlds. Yet, Greene somehow makes the analogies work for our primate minds. Greene uses a lot of line drawings that maintain the accuracy but then explains the concepts with clear narration. And the philosophers in our audience will love that he begins the book with Camus' “The Myth of Sisyphus,” to reassure the reader that this is a story that relates to the human condition. 

    Particularly daunting are ideas about slicing the many dimensions with respect to time. Time may be a fourth dimension, but it certainly differs fundamentally from the other 3 spatial dimensions. For one thing, you can move back and forth through any of the three spatial dimensions, but only forward in time.

    Greene, like many others, attributes the arrow of time to entropy. But entropy, or statistical mechanics, can only be understood in the context of many things that can go from order to disorder. Entropy is not about a singular thing; it’s about the more probable arrangement of many things. The implication is that time too must exist only in the context of many things (particles or energy) and their relationship. The book finishes in Greene’s wheelhouse: string theory. And here, I must admit, he started to lose me. This is a book for the layman with a strong interest in physics and the cosmos we live in. If you only get through 80%, you’ll still achieve the dual satisfactions of fulfilling your intellectual curiosity and addressing a philosophical need. And you’ll probably pass the final.

    Let’s Play Two: The Life and Times of Ernie Banks
    By Doug Wilson, MD
    Reviewed by J. Kemper Campbell, MD

    For more than 60 years, Ernie Banks was the face of the Chicago Cubs franchise. In fact, during many years he was the only reason to watch the abysmal Cubs team perform. Banks was a first-ballot choice for the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1977, having played his entire 18-year career as a Cub without participating in a single post-season game.

    Famously upbeat, he became an ambassador for both Chicago and baseball. Ironically, he died in 2015, the year before the Cubs broke their infamous 108-year World Series curse.

    Experienced baseball biographer, Doug Wilson, MD, practicing ophthalmologist, is like one of those dependable relief pitchers with two unhittable pitches and excellent control. He chooses interesting personalities such as Mark Fidrych, Brooks Robinson and Carlton Fisk for his biographies and researches his subjects extensively. His writing is also enlivened by an occasional surprise knuckleball of subtle humor.

    Befitting his status as a former player, Wilson does not dwell upon the foibles inevitably found in many sports icons. In Banks’ case, his four failed marriages are mentioned only peripherally. Instead, Wilson concentrates on anecdotes from Ernie’s hardscrabble childhood in segregated Dallas and later with the Kansas City Monarchs.

    The author delights in sharing arcane tidbits such as revealing Banks is one of only three individuals in the Baseball Hall of Fame who also scored baskets while playing for the Harlem Globetrotters. The other two are Ferguson Jenkins and Bob Gibson. Readers will learn that Banks is the only player in the Hall of Fame to go directly from playing in the Negro Leagues into the majors.

    Particularly relevant to understanding Banks’ character is the portion of the book dealing with the relationship between the ever-positive “Mr. Cub” and his notoriously toxic manager, Leo Durocher, who never met a man he didn’t dislike.

    Author Wilson postulates that Banks used his unflinchingly cheerful, friendly and optimistic outlook on life as a protective shield to combat the effect of his unfamiliar Northern surroundings upon a Jim Crow-raised Southerner.

    Regardless of his reason for adopting this sunny attitude, by the book’s end the reader will be convinced that the façade ultimately became his true personality. Any reader wishing to spend a pleasant interlude in the company of one of baseball’s genuine “nice guys” should pick up this book.

    In the Garden of Beasts
    By Erik Larson, MD
    Reviewed by Samuel Masket, MD

    Those familiar with Erik Larson’s writings (“Devil in the White City,” “Dead Wake,” and others) have come to appreciate and to learn from his intense historical research. Not long ago I had the privilege of seeing him interviewed in LA and came to know that he does all of the research personally.

    That news ruined a personal fantasy that one day I might fully retire and work with him as a research assistant. Nevertheless, his skills are very apparent in this book that relates the remarkable story of William Dodd and his family after Dodd was appointed by President Franklin D. Roosevelt as ambassador to Germany in 1933, the very early days of Hitler’s regime.

    William Dodd was a professor of history at the University of Chicago when appointed to that position. He was reluctant to leave the university, and there was some question as to whether his appointment was actually made in error. Nevertheless, Dodd moved to Berlin with his family in 1933. His family included his wife and two children.

    The younger, daughter Martha, was to become a central figure in the book. She was attractive, adventuresome, impressionable, liberated and came to know many of the German leaders personally. In an early scene, she was introduced to Hitler at the famed Hotel Adlon. There, the cocktail and afternoon tea lounge was known as a favorite respite for the Nazi hierarchy. Later she became heavily involved in an affair with a Soviet attaché.

    Ambassador Dodd was unprepared for and astonished to learn firsthand of Nazi atrocities, the depth of anti-Semitism and the brutal tactics of the storm troopers. Though he tried to warn Roosevelt and the U.S. State Department of the tragic realities and ambitions of the Nazis, his reports essentially fell on deaf ears. Dodd failed to enlist help from the isolationist State Department and left Germany shortly before the invasion of Poland signaled the first strike of World War II.

    The book is markedly educational and fascinating. Some fear that 1933 Germany could presage current events. As such, the book makes for important reading, not just entertainment.

    In the Hurricane’s Eye: The Genius of George Washington and the Victory at Yorktown
    By Nathaniel Philbrick
    Reviewed by M. Bruce Shields, MD

    Nathaniel Philbrick is among the outstanding historians and biographers of our generation who have kept the story of our nation alive.

    Philbrick’s previous 11 books have spanned our history, from “Mayflower: A Story of Courage, Community and War,” which I particularly enjoyed, to “The Last Stand: Custer, Sitting Bull and the Battle of Little Bighorn.”

    In his most recent book, “In the Hurricane’s Eye,” Philbrick reminds us of how close the American experiment came to never getting off the ground. The Revolutionary War had been dragging on for over five years with little hope for the Continental Army, until Lord Cornwallis committed a fatal error in fall 1781.

    It actually began in the spring of that year when Cornwallis’ British forces clashed with the rebel army under the command of Nathanael Greene at Guilford Courthouse in North Carolina (about 30 minutes from our home). Although the outcome was essentially a draw, Cornwallis’ army was decimated and limped off into Virginia to Yorktown on a peninsula between the York and James Rivers.

    Washington’s original plan had been to attack New York City, but the French commander Jean-Baptiste Donatien de Vimeur, Comte de Rochambeau, convinced him that Yorktown was a more strategic target, and the two generals headed south with their respective armies.

    Washington had long since realized that his only hope for victory was the French navy, although he had been frustrated by their failure to act. But now they were moving up from the Caribbean and down from Newport, R.I., to converge at the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay where they would clash with and defeat the British navy.

    Cornwallis was now trapped between the French navy at sea and the combined American and French armies on land. After the bloody Siege of Yorktown, he surrendered, ending one of the major military conflicts of the war, although it would be nearly two more years before the Treaty of Paris would officially end the American Revolution. For those who enjoy reading American history, this book is well-written and most interesting.

    Narconomics
    By Tom Wainwright
    Reviewed by Thomas S. Harbin, MD

    The epidemic of opioid abuse consumes the headlines seemingly daily and one aspect of the problem was recently reviewed in Scope’s Spring issue.

    The current headlines emphasize the role physicians and dentists have played in causing patients to become addicted. Fortunately, few ophthalmologists encountered patients with pain so significant that opioids needed to be given, and now we all know the danger of prescribing them. Yet illegal drugs, from marijuana (still not legal in many states) to cocaine to heroin, remain a huge problem in this country.  Many of the deaths from overdoses come from illegal drugs containing lethal amounts of fentanyl. That’s where this book comes in.

    Narconomics looks at the big picture of drug cartels and how illegal drugs enter our country and their distribution. Wainwright analyzes cartels from a business perspective. The total drug trade in 2016 was worth $300 billion, big enough to make it one of the top 40 countries in the world. Cartels face the same problems as any business with personnel, competition, sourcing material, distribution of product plus the added problem of being illegal. The author looks at each of these business issues from the viewpoint of a gang leader. This in itself is interesting.

    Just as interesting is the discussion of the business aspects of stopping this problem. Throughout, the book details the efforts of our country and the Latin American countries to stamp out this scourge. The author makes the point that the strategy of destroying drugs at the source in the various countries that grow the plants has not worked and will not work.

    The markup in price is so high that any loss of basic material will not affect the ultimate sales price. He makes the point that prohibition has not worked and then discusses the results of the few states and countries that have legalized drugs. This book will make you think that our country needs a new direction in dealing with this deadly problem.

    Facts and Fears: Hard Truths From a Life of Intelligence
    By James R. Clapper, former Director of National Intelligence with Trey Brown
    Reviewed by Marcia D. Carney, MD

    With the introduction titled, “Beyond Their Wildest Imagination,” former U.S. Director of Intelligence and ex-spy boss James R. Clapper begins his book on Nov. 8, 2016, the day of the presidential election. Clapper was in Oman on his last whirlwind trip meeting with Middle East leaders while voters in the United States went to the polls to elect the 45th president.

    Donald Trump and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton were the candidates for the job. The director’s clock was nine hours ahead of Washington, D.C. Trump was considered to have a narrow path and unlikely victory over Hillary Clinton. Pundits predicted that as soon as Florida or Ohio was called for the former secretary of state, “the election would be over.”

    Five hours later on waking, the director found that the narrative had flipped. Then came the shock and awe. Florida and Ohio had been called for Trump. At 2:31 a.m. on the East Coast, the Associated Press declared Trump president-elect. Clapper opined that the people of Washington, D.C., were out of touch with middle America. They didn’t care about Russian collusion. No one knew that Russia was just as shocked as America!

    So, what did happen?

    The Zen-like terseness of this spy baron became well-known during his tenure as director of intelligence. Now he tells how the world fell apart in “Facts and Fears.”

    According to recent history, the CIA, NSA and FBI continued to uncover evidence of pre-election Russian propaganda intended to undermine Clinton and promote Trump as the new president. Russian cyberoperations may have interfered with the election. However, the election was over. President Obama gave instructions to the CIA, NSA and FBI, the mission-specific tradecraft and capabilities to determine what the Russians had done.

    “My concern about what I saw taking place in America-and my apprehension that we were losing focus on what the Russians had done to us – is ultimately what persuaded me to write this book, to use what we learned in our assessment to frame my experience and our collective experience as Americans,” Clapper writes.

    Clapper indicates that America has great strength. However, he felt that the destiny of the American ideal was at stake. Is it? In “Facts and Fears,” Clapper tells how the world fell apart from his perspective. Opinions are worth their weight in gold … or not. For me, it was a great read!